The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A former Marine protested police brutality with duct tape over his mouth. His shoes melted in the heat.

Todd Winn during his one-man protest at the Utah State Capitol on June 5. (Robin Pendergrast)
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This month, former Marine Todd Winn pulled his old military uniform from the back of the closet, removed it from a protective garment bag and stared at his dress blues in silence for several minutes.

He wondered whether the uniform would still fit 15 years after he last wore it, but, more importantly, Winn said, he wondered whether he was worthy of wearing it.

“To be honest, I wondered if I had lived up to the ideals I had sworn to live by as a Marine,” he said. “I had taken a vow to protect and defend the U.S. Constitution. And after what happened to George Floyd, I wondered if I'd done enough to advocate for change.”

Several days later, Winn, 36, went to a barbershop to get a haircut, then returned to his home near Salt Lake City to suit up. Although his jacket and pants were a little tight, “I decided they would do,” he said.

He put a quick polish on his shoes, pinned on his medals (including two Purple Hearts) and fetched his Marines dress cap, a pair of white gloves and a protest sign he had made the night before. Then he asked his girlfriend, Katie Steck, to drive him to the entrance of the Utah State Capitol.

It was Friday, June 5 — the hottest day of the year so far in Salt Lake City, with the afternoon temperature hitting 100 degrees.

Although the heat was stifling, Winn put on his gloves, made sure that his snug jacket was buttoned properly, then affixed a piece of black tape to his mouth that read, “I can’t breathe.” The words were among the last uttered by George Floyd on May 25 while a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck, killing him.

For the next three hours, Winn stood at attention, holding a sign at his side that featured Floyd’s name and the names of several other African Americans killed in police shootings.

“Justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice and countless others,” it read.

Most people who saw him honked or waved as they drove past, he said, and some stopped to ask Steck questions.

“I couldn’t answer,” Winn said. “My silence was meant to be a moment of silence for everyone who has been victimized, including George Floyd.”

When local photographer Robin Pendergrast spotted Winn and snapped photos of his one-man protest at the Capitol — including pictures of his shoes crumbling in the heat — it didn’t take long for the images to show up on social media and get shared thousands of times.

Comments soon began pouring in from people across the country, Winn said, mostly in support of his actions:

“Being disappointed in your country enough to take direct, independent action to improve the quality of life for your fellow citizens is the definition of patriotism,” one person wrote.

“Bravo! Well said and good for you to stand up for what you believe for,” another wrote. “Human rights isn’t political. My hat is off to you sir.”

Winn said he has also received more than a few messages from those who view him as a “disgrace” to his uniform, but he isn’t upset by the criticism.

“I want to make it abundantly clear that I understand and respect the feelings of people who are unhappy that I wore my uniform for the purpose of my silent protest,” he said. “I love this country and the people of this country. That's why I put on my uniform for the first time after enlisting and that's why I did it again on that Friday."

Winn, who enlisted as a Marine in 2004 after moving to Utah, suffered traumatic brain injuries in Iraq in 2005, he said, when he was twice caught in roadside explosions.

“I’d dreamed of being a Marine since I was a kid,” said Winn, who grew up in a military family in Wichita and was a senior in high school during the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

“Because of my injuries, I was only able to serve in the Marines for three years, but they were three great years,” he said. “I loved the camaraderie and the brotherhood, and I really miss my time in the military.”

After returning to the United States and receiving an honorable medical discharge in 2007, Winn said he suffered for years from PTSD, memory loss and depression. He hung his uniform in the closet, never thinking that he’d wear it again.

And then came May 25, 2020.

As he watched the news footage of Floyd’s death, Winn said, he was horrified and saddened, and he suddenly realized that “I’d been watching the same thing happen over and over again my entire life and I hadn’t stood up for change.”

Winn thought back to his time in the military, he said, remembering the bond he had formed with Marines of all backgrounds, from every corner of the country.

“I felt that in keeping my silence, I had not done justice to these brothers,” he said.

After retrieving his dress uniform from the closet, he said, the idea for his protest at the Utah State Capitol began to form. When he told Steck what he had in mind, she enthusiastically encouraged him.

After Steck, 31, drove him to the Capitol, she stood to observe on the sidelines with bottles of water — all of which Winn declined.

A teen worked alone to clean Buffalo’s streets after unrest. People offered him a car and college tuition.

“I wanted to keep that tape on my mouth and the sentiment, ‘I can’t breathe,’ ” he said. “It was hot, most definitely. I was feeling the effects of heat exhaustion, but it was important to me to stand at attention the entire time, except for brief periods of ‘parade’ rest, with my legs apart, shoulder-width.”

For the final 8 minutes 46 seconds of his protest, Winn knelt on one knee in remembrance of Floyd, as the soles of his military dress shoes crumbled in the heat. When it was over, he returned home exhausted, he said, and decided to write a letter about his protest.

“Every voice, large and small, must come together as one to condemn the racism, intolerance and bigotry that seeks to tear our societies apart,” he wrote. “It has been and continues to be my great honor to serve my fellow Americans. My love for this country and its people is what drove me to serve in 2004, and what motivates me still today … it is never too late to stand up for what is right.”

Now that his uniform has been returned to the closet, along with his melted shoes, Winn said he has no plans to wear his dress blues in protest again.

“It got a lot bigger than I expected, and I don’t enjoy the attention,” he said. “But I’ve come to accept that it was a necessary discomfort to spread the message to more people. America is not a war zone — the American people should not be the enemy. We have to come together as a human species and recognize that the diversity of our humanity is our greatest strength.”

This story has been updated to reflect that Todd Winn is a former Marine, not a retired Marine.

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